• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Hotheaded Herb: The "Spice"

April 2017


It’s nothing short of coincidental, and often humorously so, when a person’s name fits his personality type. Charles Dickens made this an enduringly entertaining theme in his works. You need only turn a few pages to bear witness to his capacious cache of unforgettable character names. Hear the name Ebenezer Scrooge and try not to think of an avaricious curmudgeon. Pumblechook, Pickwick, and Twist—they needn’t further introduction beyond their names.


A similar play on names applies to White House press secretaries past and present. With a name like Joseph Short, who served during the Truman administration, I think of a man quick-tempered and terse, preferring pith to prolix. Robert Gibbs, an Obama appointee, draws a quick connection to the word “glib”—a term applicable to any politician behind a podium. Fluency with a tincture of insincerity is the language of any lawman worth his salt. Josh Earnest—now that’s a name well-suited for irony and a quick wit. For the president’s most valuable and voluble mouthpiece, you’d better darn well expect a little candor.


This brings us to the man currently heading the Brady Briefing Room—Sean Spicer. His name continues the tri-syllabic trend of the predecessors (Ro-bert Gibbs, Josh Ear-nest, Sean Spi-cer—three syllables the whole lot of them), but adds an alliterative punch. And it’s not just the ear that’s aroused; those with bland palates might perspire just thinking about Sean’s spicy dab on the tongue. You know the feeling: even an unintended nibble can leave you speechless and sweating with lips like lava and a forehead furled.


Sean Spicer has this affect. The man conducts heat in such a way that an Indian chef would blush. In Spicer, we have the perfect name for the man. We’ll call it a literary victory, and Dickens would be proud.


Spicer, who previously passed his time as the communications director for the RNC, scorched journalists from the very start. It all begins with his manner of speech. His idiolect is an inarticulate thing. He’s not eloquent by most measures, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for an administration forwarding an “every-man” ideal.


There’s something to be said for “setting the tone”, though, and he certainly did with his erroneous statement about the president’s inauguration crowd size. It hardly needs retelling, but it was Spicer’s first official fallacy…on his first day. While he wasn’t the only one peddling this blatant untruth, he is the administration’s mouthpiece, and as such his words carry weight. We have a right to the veridical, truthful goings-on, and no amount of vanity changes that.


Journalists in Washington are well-accustomed to the political prevaricators with whom they speak, but Spicer is a different breed. Not only is he elusive, but he’s aggressive as well. He carries himself with an abrasive, evasive, and above all eristic style, which is starting to shift America’s sympathy toward the media—something I thought I’d never see. He’s contentious—often unnecessarily so—and he’s become the bully of the Brady Briefing Room while the press receives his blows.


Although Obama’s eight years provide a much larger sample size from which to find examples (Trump will only soon mark his fourth month in office), in general and throughout his tenure, Obama was treated by the media much more amicably. Between the reporters and Obama, there seemed always to be some kind of unspoken blanket of mutual benignity. As a cool, charismatic, citified elite, Obama was immediately embraced as one of “them”. The largely liberal media was made comfortable by this, and reporters began gaining a reputation for flinging flaccid questions at “their” guy. Any punches left over from not having been pulled were thrown with kid gloves. It’s true, Spicer hasn’t been dealt Obama’s hand, but the acrimony between him and the reporters is a bit extreme.


When Spicer isn’t engaged in his weekly fist-to-cuffs with the media, there’ some humor to be found in him. Unlike his boss Mr. Trump, who has an uncanny inability to laugh at himself, Spicer has some soft spots of self-deprecation. They’re hard to find, but with enough prodding on his corpulent carapace, you’re bound to find one or two. If he’s not entirely self-effacing, at the very least he’s comically self-aware. Even he was unable to keep up his tough-as-nails veneer after seeing Melissa McCarthy’s riotous raillery on SNL. “A man cannot make him laugh”, Shakespeare says in As You Like It. Luckily for us, McCarthy is a gal and can cause in him a little chuckle.


But, like anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a satiric sketch, Spicer meekly asked McCarthy to dial it back a bit. Fair enough. No one wants to be the butt of the joke, but it shows—like a good-natured nudge to the navel with a bit too much oomph—her satirical jab was a bit too tough. He would have done better to laugh right along, take it in stride, and maybe come back with his own witty aside. Spicer is fertile ground, and SNL is unlikely to ease up. Much like the memory of Sarah Palin, who’s known now more for Tina Fey’s halcyon heyday, Spicer risks becoming SNL legend.


While his SNL response showed an ability to (almost) laugh at himself, he followed it with a cringe-worthy second act. He made a statement that jumped atop the hierarchy of the many recently reprehensible sound bites. For some odd and ahistorical reason, he asserted that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his own people. It reads much worse out of context, but if we are to give him some intellectual pliancy and lend him an empathetic ear, I can uncomfortably understand what he was getting at. He was trying to express the egregiousness of Bashar al-Assad’s attack (and thereby, justify America’s missile strike) by saying that even Hitler didn’t resort to using chemical weapons on Germans the way Assad has on Syrians.


Admittedly, to render Spicer’s statement in this way isn’t a task one could easily defend. You’d have to dive deeply into the depths of semantics and even then, it would be difficult to shine a favorable light on what Spicer said. German Jews, sons and daughters of their vaterland as much or more so than their German Christian neighbors, were victims of the gas chambers in Belzic and Birkenau. Syrian citizens are likewise victims of their own regime’s chemical attacks, although they aren’t first concentrated before being killed.


Hours passed after Spicer made his statement, and each was filled with apoplexy and anxiety. This lasted until Spicer appeared with Wolf Blitzer for an emergent apology. The damage control department has become one of this administration’s busiest. Trump’s surrogates, more often than not, have a tendency to double down whenever their words have the slightest potential of defense. This, however, was not such a case. That the mouthpiece for the Chief Executor could have said something so ridiculous required an apology. This was the least Spicer could do and very well had to do.


As such, it was uncomfortable yet essential for him to appear live in front of Blitzer. Blitzer is, to most people’s surprise, is a German-American whose parents, as Auschwitz prisoners before becoming refugees in America, could’ve only prayed that Hitler was not using chemical weapons in the ways Spicer implies he did not.


Spicer, in response to Wolf’s indignation, seemed genuinely contrite. No other response, aside from humble contrition, would’ve been accepted. Such a specious statement required a full-throated apology and explanation, and this is what Spicer delivered. He took Blitzer’s questions on the chin, knowing full-well he couldn’t defend what he had said, and this was commendable. That being said, “he who makes an ass of himself must not take it ill if men ride him”. Wolf rode him, and rightfully so.


Spicer’s apology may have saved some face and bought some time, but his future is by no means secure; the day might still come, and perhaps soon, when he finds his head rolling off Trump’s chopping block. Trump’s is a well-worn chopping block, and one that would have no trouble knowing what to do with a new spice splashed upon it. For the time being, he may want to think more carefully and swallow words more slowly, lest the unfounded ones find themselves sliding off his tongue.

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